July 21, 2009

Turkey: Between darkness and light


In the occupied France in the 1940’s, several Turkish Consuls and Ambassadors signed fake nationality certificates to save Jews from deportation.

”Even if Salomon Karel was Jewish, he would not have been subjected to the preferential treatment for the Jewish people in France, at the time when, without any discrimination, French citizens enjoyed an absolute security”. The document emanates from Necdet Kent, the General Turkish Consul in Marseille (France), to the Vichy regime, dated from February 15th of 1943. It was the document of the last chance for Salomon and Luiza Karel, Turkish fabrics manufacturers based in Marseille. The net was tightening. In November 1942, the German troops invaded the South zone, making much more difficult and precarious the survival of Jews, who were persecuted by the Nazis. ”The document is not what we can call, an official document. Necdet Kent had to sign it in a rush in order to save this couple, harassed by the Gestapo” explains Daniel Rainer, vice President of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation based in Jerusalem. The document worked though and the married couple was saved.

The foundation wants to shed light on the role of the Turkish diplomats established in France during the Holocaust. This is a very controversial subject because, the real role of Turkey during the conflict, whereas it was supposed to be neutral, is still shady. In 1988, the Israeli newspaper, Davar, touts some individual actions in its article: ”Turkish people also saved Jews”. The main information of this paper was the brave action of the Consul of Rhodes, Selahettin Ulkman, between 1943 and 1944. Indeed, he saved 42 Jews from the Greek city and was honored by the title of Righteous among the Nations in 1990. Nevertheless, the actions of Turkish diplomats in France are still unknown.

Regulars and Irregulars

20000 Turkish Jews lived in France in 1940. On the eve of big perils, they divided themselves into two groups. Half of them were considered as ”regulars”. They lived in France but had their Turkish official papers. The others were ”irregulars”, Turkish by their birth but who lost their nationality. Many Jews moved from this Eastern land at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Others reached France at the beginning of the 1920’s, puzzled at the hand of the Turkish Republic’s stuttering. The life in France seemed easier and more comfortable than the life in a State with nationalist stenches and a vague future. Some of them took the French nationality; others lost their Turkish nationality unwillingly, by administrative carelessness. Indeed, to keep their nationality, they had to go to the Consulate every five years. A lot of Turkish thought it was a useless formality and they would regret it with bitterness. In 1940, the situation had undergone a reversal. The precious sesame became a matter of life and death. Those who became ”irregulars” rushed to the Consulate to get back their citizenship and to escape from the Vichy’s swipes. This effort was useless for so many of them. Indeed, the administrative machine, allied to the feeble preparedness of Turkey to see coming back this crowd of exiled, complicated the situation.

In front of the imminence of the deportation, some Consuls took the initiative and delivered citizenship without the agreement of Ankara. ” The diplomats had, hopefully, a large liberty of acting” moderates David Rainer. Among the 20000 Jews who were living in France, 3000 were deported towards the German concentration camps. Some exemplary actions stood out from the crowd: the Turkish Consul in Marseille, Necdet Kent, managed to save 82 Jews, already crammed in a cattle truck at the Saint Charles Station in Marseille. The German officer began by ignoring him. ”Turkish or not, a Jew is a Jew”. Then, the diplomat got on the wagon with his secretary, Sidi Isan. The Gestapo was panicked in front of this unexpected action. ”The officer asked me whose, in this wagon, were Jews from Turkey. All around me, women, men and children stared panicky the deal made above their heads” he explains in his memories. The Consul refused to make this ”choice” and all the wagon alighted at Nice’s Station. The volunteers of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation try to understand the whole story and find some survivors or their descendants. Another Turkish diplomat, Namyk Kemal Yolga, vice Consul in Paris, also delivered 176 passports to Jews excluded from official Turkish registers. Some people found out inventive practices. For example, the Turkish Ambassador in Vichy, Behic Erkin, had a doorman, Andre Picard. A key job as the man could see what the Gestapo was doing in an adjacent building. He had also to teach basis of the Turkish language to Jews needing help and protection, sentences like: ” Turkey is our motherland, we have family everywhere” they would have to report to the Consul few minutes after, as en evidence of their Turkish identity.

Jewish camps in Anatolia

At the hand of those individual stories, there is a problem for the historians. Pro and Anti Turkish are fighting. The actions of some diplomats do not mean that Turkey was a ”Jews-saving State” as she likes to call herself. The Republic of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, based on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire also mistreated her Jewish Community by financial strangulation, forced-labor…the refuge of Spanish Jews during the Inquisition in the 15th and 16th century became a dictatorial State for her minorities. Selim Amado, a French octogenarian speaker form Kfar Saba, keeps a bad memoruy of his childhood in Istanbul, from vexations at school to nationalist laws in the 1930’s. He talks about Turkey with child innocence and the obligation to speak Turkish and the mockeries about the Jewish accent. For example in Morocco, the Community spoke ladino, a dialect between Hebraic and Spanish. It was a difficult step for a minority who enjoyed a relative independence until then. According to the German historian Corinne Gutsdadt, the new Republic questioned all their rights. Jews were expulsed form numerous jobs. But the worse was coming. The Kemalist State started a new set of big outlays for its Defense and the Jewish Community seemed like a kitty easy to use and so, the Republic installed a new tax: ”the capitation”, a tax so hard to pay that many Jews had to sell all their goods and those who could not pay were send to forced-labor camps in Oriental Anatolia.

”At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Turkey was blamed by the Allies and had to end her racist policy. But things had been already done and a lot of families, humiliated and undone, preferred join Palestine” explains Salim Amado. Inflexible with her national Jews, Turkey eventually opened her doors, in a sporadic way, to those coming from the exterior. At the beginning of the 1930’s, the country welcomed German Jewish scientists and teachers, renegade since the Hitlerian laws. It was a determinative help for the universities of the young Republic. Between exterior rescues and persecutions inside, how analyzing the role of Turkey and her diplomats? Very backward about her past, Ankara shows some difficulties to open the access to her archives. The work of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation is therefore, particularly sensitive. Turkey wants to show her best part to the International Community and knowing the existence of brave actions made by some diplomats arrive just at the right time. Even though, the darkness of a country may tarnish the courage and the humanism of some nationals throughout Europe.